Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'


Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

It’s been a while since Alejandro Villanueva could call himself a football player.

For Villanueva, a former U.S. Army captain who spent the past four years in the military (see story), the Eagles’ OTAs over the past three weeks have been the first time he's participated in football activities since a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals following his senior season at Army in 2009.

“I feel like a football player again,” Villanueva said following the Eagles' OTA on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing all the requirements that all the other players are doing, so I feel like I’m part of the team.”

However, his time with the Eagles so far hasn’t had much in common with his football experience at Army.

At 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds, Villanueva’s size and speed were so uncommon for Army that his coaches were never quite sure how to best maximize his abilities. He played three positions in four years, starting off as a defensive lineman, developing into a starting left offensive tackle as a junior before converting to wide receiver as a senior and leading the team with 34 receptions, 522 yards and five touchdowns.

The Eagles have determined that his size will be best spent as a defensive end, a decision that is perfectly fine with Villanueva. After the constant shuffling in college, he is looking forward to finally being able to develop at one position.

“[Playing defense] is a lot different but the coaching has been great, so I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Villanueva said. “If they think I have a better chance of playing defensive [line], I’ll play there.”

Having not played defense since the beginning of his sophomore year of college, Villanueva has relied heavily on his new teammates to learn defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and second-year defensive end Brandon Bair.

Although his height would seem to give him potential as a pass rusher, Villanueva has concentrated mostly on learning the run-stuffing techniques that come with playing defensive end in the 3-4.

“[Defensive line] coach [Jerry] Azzinaro has been adamant about the key points I can focus on,” Villanueva said. “In our scheme, striking and using my legs are those things. As we progress, hopefully I can put those things into play and improve from where I started.”

In reality, Villanueva’s focus is not on what position he plays as much as it is simply making the team.

A team captain his senior year at West Point, Villanueva's biggest adjustment has been adapting his mindset to fighting for a roster spot after being a key player in college.

Earning a spot on special teams will likely be his best chance to make the final roster; he spent much of Tuesday’s session practicing with the kick return unit.

“Playing football at Army is pretty special and obviously I have a lot more experience there,” Villanueva said. “[Playing for the Eagles] is a different situation. At Army I played four years and was always able to contribute and now I’m just trying to make the team.

“Making the team [is my goal], so if they put me on all the special teams that would be the best news.”

In his few weeks as an Eagle, Villanueva has already received numerous questions from his teammates about his time in the Army. He served three tours in Afghanistan during his four years of service.

Although he is eager to move on with this new chapter in his life as a professional athlete, Villanueva has no problem with teammates asking him about his past. If anything, the camaraderie in the locker room has been his favorite part of playing football again.

“Sometimes they ask about it (being in the army) when they have a question that’s been burning them,” Villanueva said. “Usually they have a question about how things are run. It’s a learning experience for a lot of them. My teammates have been awesome, so it’s been pretty fun overall.”

Eagles-Vikings 5 things: Game much bigger than Sam Bradford's return

Eagles-Vikings 5 things: Game much bigger than Sam Bradford's return

Eagles vs. Vikings
1 p.m. on FOX

Eagles +3

A familiar face comes to town on Sunday when the Eagles host the Vikings, the NFL's last unbeaten team at 5-0.

There's more to this matchup than a certain jilted quarterback returning to Lincoln Financial Field though. After an inspired 3-0 start, the Eagles have come out flat in two consecutive games, both losses. If this squad has any hope of getting back on track in Week 7, they can't afford to focus on the high-profile former teammate in purple sleeves.

Grinding it out
How good is the Vikings' defense? Even though they're ranked fourth in the league against the run and eighth in yards per carry allowed, they've faced the second-highest number of rushing attempts. Simply put, between a fierce pass-rush and ball-hawking secondary, offenses are afraid to put the ball in the air against this team.

Opponents have decided the best way to beat the Minnesota defense is by keeping the ball on the ground — shorten the game, try to create manageable third downs and play the field position game. Of course, the best way for the Eagles to beat Washington's 28th-ranked run defense last week, with a fifth-round rookie right tackle making his first career start mind you, also would've been to hand the ball off early and often, which wasn't exactly the game plan that we saw.

As good as Carson Wentz is, the Eagles probably aren't going to beat this team by airing the ball out. It may be inefficient and look ugly, but this time, head coach Doug Pederson needs to lean on the ground attack and take the pressure off of his first-year quarterback and tackle. Otherwise, a Vikings defense that ranks third in the NFL in sacks and fourth in interceptions can take this game over.

Self-inflicted wounds
Ticky-tack calls or not, you can't blame the judgment of the officials for all of the penalties the Eagles have taken the past two weeks. Last week in Washington, they drew 13 flags for 114 yards. The week before, it was 14 flags for 111 yards. Is it really any coincidence in two losses the Eagles have been penalized 27 times for 225 yards? Unlikely.

Were one or two or even a handful of those calls excessive? Have officials missed some potential calls that could have gone the other way? Yes and yes, as is always the case. When it's that many penalties for that many yards though, you can only place so much blame on the refs.

Simply put, the players need to clean up their acts. According to TeamRankings.com, the Eagles are committing the most penalties per game at 9.8. Only one other team is above 9.0. All excuses aside, the Eagles lack discipline right now, and it's hard to beat anybody when they are continuously shooting themselves in the foot, let alone the only undefeated squad in football.

No gimmes
There is no bigger indicator of winning and losing in the NFL than turnovers. So what happens when the two teams who cough the ball up the least are going head-to-head?

One thing the Eagles did correct in Washington was the little giveaway problem that cost them the game in Detroit. After losing their first fumble and throwing their first interception of the season in the final three minutes of their loss at Detroit, the offense went back to playing turnover-free football on Sunday, one of the positive things that could be said for the performance.

Yet the only team that's committed fewer turnovers than the Eagles is the Vikings, who have just one through five games. The ball security these clubs have displayed is remarkable bordering on unheard of. So what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object? The first one to blink, or in this case make a mistake, might just cost themselves the game in what could be a tightly contested tilt.

Just a pit stop
If it feels like the Eagles' 34-3 romp of the Steelers at the Linc was a long time ago, well, it has been almost a month. Since then, there's been a bye week followed by trips to Detroit and Washington, putting the last home game at exactly four weeks ago.

Don't get used to the feeling either. After their game against the Vikings on Sunday, the Eagles go back on the road for two contests against the division rival Cowboys and Giants.

What does it all mean? Besides a travel-heavy stretch, it suggests this sandwich game with the Vikings is an especially significant spot on the Eagles' schedule, particularly given the slow starts they've jumped out to as the visiting team of late. That can't be blamed entirely on going on the road of course, but it certainly hasn't helped. Vikings or not, the Eagles could use a positive showing on Sunday before they go away again.

The Bradford Bowl
You didn't really think we were going to completely gloss over Sam Bradford, did you? Not even mention his name?

It's interesting, because right now, the trade that sent Bradford to the Vikings and cleared the way for Wentz to start at quarterback for the Eagles looks like a win-win. Both head coaches agreed with that sentiment as well. Mike Zimmer says Bradford gave the Vikings an energy back after starter Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season with an improbable injury, while despite coming back down to earth a bit the last two weeks, it's obvious the Eagles' future is bright with Wentz.

That being said, there are some additional bragging rights at stake for both signal-callers this week, whether they acknowledge it or not. If the Eagles win, it shows their gamble on Wentz being prepared to start right away was justified. If the Vikings win, pundits could argue the Eagles never should've traded Bradford in the first place.

These are only narratives of course, and the Eagles' investment in Wentz and the Vikings' desperation trade for Bradford are both left to be judged somewhere down the road, long after this game has been played. Nonetheless, the result on Sunday is sure to spark some interesting debate in the coming days.

Eagles-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

The Eagles are coming off two straight losses and the slate doesn't get any easier with the 5-0 Vikings coming to town.

It also marks the return of Sam Bradford, who was traded just before Week 1, paving the way for rookie Carson Wentz to start.

The Eagles kick off against Minnesota at the Linc on Sunday at 1 p.m., so it's time for our (cough) experts' predictions for the Week 7 matchup.

Dave Zangaro (2-3)
I'll admit, this game just has a weird feel. It has the feeling like the Eagles might be able to catch the Vikings sleeping after their bye week and hand them their first loss of the season.

I was almost tempted to pick the Birds in this one.

But I'm not.

Ultimately, the Vikings are just the better team. I'm not sure how the Eagles are going to put up points against them. And I'm not convinced the Eagles' defense will be able to stop anyone after what we saw last weekend.

They keep it close, but the Birds fall to 3-3.

Vikings 20, Eagles 17

Derrick Gunn (2-3)
The good news is Minnesota's offense is ranked 30th in the league and the Vikings' run game is dead last averaging 70.6 yards per game. 

The bad news is the Vikings' defense is a monster, ranked 2nd overall and first in points allowed at 12.6.

There is not a weak link in the Vikings' D and they are fundamentally sound across the board. The Eagles' defense vows that what happened to them at Washington — allowing 230 rushing yards — won't happen again. 

Carson Wentz got roughed up by the Redskins' pass rush, and unless the Eagles' offensive line plugs the leaks, more of the same could happen this Sunday. The Birds have every reason to rebound at home, but I just don't like the overall matchup. 

Vikings 20, Eagles 13

Ray Didinger (2-3)
The Vikings aren't going undefeated. You don't go 16-0 in the NFL with a 30th ranked offense which is what the Vikings have. Yes, their defense is very good. Going back to last season they have held each of their last nine opponents to 17 points or less. They are deep, fast and well-coached by Mike Zimmer. But the offense led by Sam Bradford coughs and sputters a lot.
As a result, the Vikings will play a lot of close, low-scoring games and somewhere along the line they are going to lose. It could even happen this week when they play the Eagles. Special teams could be huge. The Eagles have a big edge with kicker Caleb Sturgis. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has already missed three field goals and two PATs. However, the Vikings return men -- Marcus Sherels on punts, Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs -- are very dangerous. I expect the Eagles to keep it close but in the end I have to go with the superior defense.
Vikings 21, Eagles 16

Andrew Kulp (2-3)
Which Eagles defense shows up on Sunday? If they can limit Minnesota's anemic ground attack, which ranks dead last in the NFL, this should be a close game. Sam Bradford is playing really well, but it's not like he's airing it out all over the place.

Then it becomes a question of how Halapoulivaati Vaitai responds to a rough debut. The Vikings pass-rush is fierce, so it doesn't get any easier this week. As long as the protection gives Carson Wentz a chance, that will at least give the rookie signal-caller a shot at making a few big plays.

For some reason, I like their chances at both. It's going to be another ugly one, but the Eagles do just enough to squeak by.

Eagles 20, Vikings 19

Corey Seidman (2-3)
I foresee a low-scoring game in which the Eagles are more competitive than some might think.

But in the end, the Vikings have the personnel and the defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer) to get key stops down the stretch.

Vikings 20, Eagles 16

Andy Schwartz (1-4)
You’re still reading? 

Well good for you. Much appreciated. 

Because clearly I don’t know what to expect from this team. 

But let’s forget all that for the moment and look at the Bradford Bowl. 

The Vikings’ offense is hardly scary (30th in the league in yards per game behind the Rams and Niners), but their defense is (second in yards per game behind Seattle).

The Eagles’ offense is hardly scary (22nd in yards per game), and their defense (sixth in yards per game) was pretty scary a few weeks ago.

So let’s look at the intangibles. Which team needs this game more? The Eagles. And they’re at home. 

But given the outcomes the last two weeks and that Minnesota is unbeaten and coming off a bye, it certainly makes sense to pick the Vikes, who are favored by 2.5.

Then again, the Eagles not too long ago were unbeaten and coming off a bye … and we all know what happened.

So I’ll say the Birds pull off another upset and remain unbeaten at the Linc. 

Just don’t bet on it.

Eagles 6, Vikings 5